Filling the worker rights vacuum

Two Thousand Nineteen seems remarkable for the number of historical events that are being commemorated with round number anniversaries. Fifty years ago, 1969, saw the Moon landing and Woodstock on the good side; the murders of the Manson Family on the bad side. One hundred years ago Congress passed the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. As the New York Times has responded to in a special series, 2019 is also the 400th anniversary of the landing in 1619 of the first African slaves in the English colonies.

One anniversary, also going back to 1969, has not been made much of. That year, 1969, was the year Republicans took over the American economy, and began to dismantle the system that had regulated capitalism since FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s. A system that had led to unprecedented stability, prosperity and economic advancement for all classes of Americans.

The picture hasn’t been pretty ever since, as the wealthy have disproportionately benefited from economic growth, leaving working people in debt and despair.

One bedrock principle and achievement of the New Deal was to establish the right of workers to organize. The resulting unionization of American workers under the National Labor Relations Act (the “Wagner Act”), overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), resulted in unprecedented gains in incomes, healthcare and pensions for all employees, whether they worked for unionized companies or worked for companies that emulated union standards to compete for labor.

Once Republicans took control of the White House in 1969, control that Republicans maintained for all but 12 years through 2009, giving them control of the NLRB for nearly two generations, they stripped away the rights and protections of the Wagner Act.

As a result, although the economy has greatly expanded over the past 50 years as technological gains have greatly enhanced worker productivity, the share of the pie that workers get has not grown. For decades, income stagnation has been a problem. Ironically, the politician who has most effectively exploited worker discontent is the Republican who currently occupies the White House — and whose appointments to the NLRB are among the most anti-union in history. (Not to mention all his other plutocrat-friendly policies.)

The evisceration over 50 years of the Wagner Act has left a vacuum, and we know what Nature abhors. That vacuum is going to be filled, given that workers no longer have the ability to negotiate their conditions of employment effectively; given that we fortunately live in a society where it’s no longer okay for workers to be exploited quite as viciously as they were during the Industrial Revolution; and given that government has to pick up the pieces when workers don’t earn high enough wages to pay for the costs of living and raising families.

Even conservatives acknowledge that something must be done for workers and their families. In a disingenuous but nonetheless illuminating opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times August 4, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, Oren Cass, while dismissing “1930s-style unions” as outdated (what chutzpah, considering that to the extent, if any, that unions haven’t been able to serve workers effectively, the cause has been the conservative war against them), acknowledged that there was a crisis, and argued that “new forms of organizing through which workers can support one another, engage with management and contribute to civil society should be a conservative priority.”

Oh, that’s nice. Needless to say, Mr. Cass did not have any ideas of what these new forms of organizing might be, nor how they might simultaneously empower workers and have conservative support. That’s a combination we won’t see.

Which leaves government to fill the vacuum, which explains why governments, including ours here in Santa Monica, and voters all over the country, have been increasing minimum wages.

Next week we will see more vacuum-filling in Santa Monica. At the City Council meeting Tuesday night the council will no doubt adopt an ordinance that will govern many aspects of the workplace in Santa Monica’s hotels. Hotel owners don’t like government telling them how to run their businesses, but how they treat their 2,100 workers here, especially in a city so dependent on their businesses (Santa Monica will receive more than $68 million in revenue this fiscal year from the hotel tax), is too important to be left to them.

The proposed ordinance is based on existing laws in Long Beach, Oakland, and Emeryville in California, and in Seattle and Chicago, and will cover worker safety (particularly for female workers), protections for workers from being laid off if there is a change in ownership, worker training, protections against mandatory overtime, and, most controversial, limits on the workloads of housekeepers.

City staff has done a lot of work researching the operation of the ordinances in the other cities, and generally staff is recommending solutions that emphasize “realizability” — meaning that the regulations should be easily understood and implemented without too much interpretation or involvement by the City.

On the issue of workload, for instance, staff is recommending a relatively easy-to-understand cap, based on square footage, on the maximum workload for a housekeeper working an eight-hour shift. This is not how hotels themselves like to divvy up workloads; they prefer a system that assigns different “credits” to different tasks. Indeed, considering that a square foot of one kind of room might be easier to clean than a square foot of another kind of room, this might make sense for their operations. But basing a maximum workload rule on a credit system would entail close involvement of the city into hotel operations — something I would assume hotels would not want.

Instead, city staff, following the ordinances in other cities, proposes a “bright line” of a cap on square footage (for an eight-hour shift). The proposed ordinance, however, doesn’t require that hotels abandon the credit system to assign work to their employees; only that at the end of the day (literally), a housekeeper can’t be asked to clean more than a maximum number of square feet without hitting overtime.

UNITE Here, the hotel workers union, and staff disagree about the size of the cap. Staff proposes a cap of 4,000 square feet, which is the cap in the Long Beach and Oakland ordinances. The union, arguing that Santa Monica hotel rooms, because of various factors, take longer to clean than hotel rooms in other cities, wants the cut-off here to be 3,500 square feet. I cannot claim to be an expert on hotel maintenance with an informed opinion about whether 4,000 or 3,500 square feet is the right number. I can say, however, that I know from personal experience, and the experiences of housekeepers I’ve hired, that even less than 3,500 square feet of house is a lot to clean in an eight-hour shift.

Thanks for reading.

Where to build housing and where not

I ended my blog last week about Santa Monica’s housing policies with some good news, namely that a lot of housing was either under construction in the city or had approvals to proceed to construction. As of the end of March, 759 units were under construction and another 1,384 had received planning approvals. Most of this housing received approval under laws that are no longer in force, but it was at least good to see that the one good thing about the high rents that result from the region’s housing crisis is that they do attract investment to build apartments that will house people for 50 or 60 years.

But then depressing news came to light when the City released its annual report on housing production. The numbers showed why the state is trying to take control of land use policy. The City reported that in fiscal year 2017-18 only 46 multi-family housing units (apartments or condos) were built in Santa Monica, of which only two were affordable.

This low level of construction continued and exacerbated a trend from fiscal year 2014-15, when housing production fell drastically. While in the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years total multi-family production was 941 units in Santa Monica (of which 503 were affordable!), in the four years since then, only 478 housing units, an average of 119 per year, have been built. This number is fewer than half of the 250 units expected to be built annually under the LUCE, and less even than the average of 217 units built in Santa Monica annually over the past 24 years. (In fact, housing production wasn’t even that good: the report’s construction numbers don’t take into account demolitions. According to the City’s housing reports, from June 2014 to June 2018, the net increase in housing units, after deducting demolitions (and including data for single-family houses), was 422, an average annual increase of only 105.)

Again, the good news is that a fair amount of housing is now in the works, either under construction or approved, in Santa Monica. However, the anemic production of the past four years, and, as I discussed in last week’s blog, the apparent debacle of the Downtown Community Plan, illustrate why Sacramento is not likely to leave housing policy to local governments. Not when Governor Newson wants his legacy to include 3.5 million new homes.

I write this even as the most ambitious proposal to limit local control, Scott Wiener’s SB50, is dead for the year. Sen. Anthony Portantino, of La Cañada/Flintridge, responding to pleas from residents of single-family, suburban areas (such as La Cañada/Flintridge), used his power as Chair of the Appropriations Committee to prevent Wiener’s bill from reaching the Senate floor. The bill drew the ire of single-family zone residents because somewhere along the way a bill that encouraged in-fill urban development had become a bill that would have drastically up-zoned nearly all single-family zones in the state.

This up-zoning of suburbia not only added a poison pill to SB50, but also it was bad urban policy. Why densify sprawl? It doesn’t make sense: if you build more housing off the urban grid, isolated from decent transit, jobs, shopping and entertainment, you magnify the disaster that sprawl is. Wiener needs to bring back a bill that privileges investment in urban housing, and there is plenty of urban land that is zoned for commercial and industrial purposes where this can be done without driving residents crazy. Santa Monica showed how to do this in the ’90s by allowing double the amount of residential development over commercial development in formerly commercial zones in its downtown. A boom in housing resulted.

Downtown Santa Monica development

But cities don’t like to turn commercial and industrial real estate into housing. While no-growth politics coming from affluent homeowners has had a lot to do with California’s failure to build enough housing, a factor that has drawn national attention, another factor has been that cities prefer commercial development that generates taxes over residential development that requires the delivery of services. Cities are loath to convert commercial real estate to housing.

In the interest of promoting economic development cities don’t take into account how many more jobs per square foot of development are now created in office and retail buildings over what existed on old industrial properties, and how many more square feet can now be built in multi-story office buildings than existed in the old one-story factories. Every 1,000 square feet of office development now generates at least three or four jobs, and for those jobs, at least two housing units need to be built. But cities rarely consider that math when rezoning commercial or industrial properties.

Unfortunately, Santa Monica has been a leader in this regard as well, given how it has converted originally industrial areas to offices without sufficient housing for the many more people who work there. In a future version of his bill, Wiener would do well to require more housing to be built whenever cities entitle more commercial development.

As for the suburbs, instead of attacking single-family zoning where we don’t want denser development anyway, what the legislature needs to do is to require local governments to allow (and encourage) the repurposing of malls with added housing and offices (local jobs for suburbanites), and as nodes for transit. Leave the housing subdivisions alone.

Wiener will bring the bill back next year, and I suspect that next time a version of it will get further along in the process. Wiener learned from his mistakes with the first version of his housing bill last year, and I suspect he’ll learn from his mistakes this year. And presumably by then the governor will want to see more progress. This story isn’t over.

Thanks for reading.

Whack-a-mole housing policy

When in the summer of 2017 the Santa Monica City Council, after six years of work, adopted the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), the then architecture critic for the L.A. Times, Christopher Hawthorne, wrote an article about it. Hawthorne, after a conversation with City Manager Rick Cole, expressed guarded optimism that the plan, which Cole and the council had touted as a “housing” plan, would indeed lead to the building of more housing, for all income levels, in downtown Santa Monica.

According to Hawthorne, Cole characterized the DCP as being the result of a “grand bargain” between anti-growth and pro-housing factions in Santa Monica. Because the DCP included streamlined approvals for housing and height and density bonuses for housing development, and eliminated parking minimums, Cole was confident, based on the City’s financial analysis, that developers would build housing despite increased requirements for including affordable housing.

Hawthorne was respectful of Cole’s optimism, but the critic injected a note of skepticism in his article by including a comment from Santa Monica housing activist Jason Islas to the effect that the DCP’s high percentage requirements for affordable housing (maxing out at 30% for the largest projects “on-site,” or 35% “off-site”) would mean that no housing would be built. Islas’ comment on the affordability question was that “30% of zero is zero.”

Now nearly two years on, and according to a “Downtown Community Plan Monitoring Report” the City issued March 22, Islas’ predictions have proven more accurate that City Manager Cole’s. Since adoption of the DCP, six projects have been proposed under the DCP standards, totaling 335 units, but only 19—only 6%!—are affordable. How can that be, you say? Isn’t 20% the minimum under the DCP?

No. Twenty percent is the minimum for projects over 39 feet tall (“Tier 2 projects.”) Five of the six DCP projects are Tier 1. Under the City’s rosy financial analysis, this wasn’t supposed to happen. The City’s financial consultants, and a majority of City Council members, predicted developers would build market rate units in Santa Monica even if they had to provide higher percentages of affordable housing than were required anywhere else in the state.

Developers are proposing to build market-rate housing (but not much) under DCP standards, but not with nearly the affordable housing City Council wanted to come with it.

As I said, five of the six DCP projects are Tier 1, which means they only have a five percent affordable requirement. One project is Tier 2, but as the March 22 report points out, the developer of that project opted to build to 50 feet even though the zoning would have allowed a height of 60 feet (meaning an additional floor of apartments). By adding that floor, the developer would have increased the affordable obligation from 20% to 25%, presumably wiping out any profit for the additional density.

It’s not only that developers are not building the denser and more affordable housing that the DCP was supposed to encourage, but the housing being proposed contravenes other goals of the DCP. The five Tier 1 DCP projects are entirely comprised of small (less than 375 square feet) studio units. (These units are referred to in developer applications and staff reports as “single room occupancy” (SRO) units, but don’t confuse them with what “SRO” usually refers to, namely “congregant” housing, with shared bathrooms, kitchens and other facilities often built for residents who need supportive services. The proposed units are small versions of what are variously referred to in real estate listings as “studios,” “singles” or “bachelor” units, with their own bathrooms and cooking facilities.)

The DCP is bizarre, but I suppose typical for the product of political “grand bargains,” in that the its standards penalize the building of what the City professes to want—a mix of unit types and affordability to create a diverse neighborhood downtown—while making it easier to build what the City says it doesn’t want, namely smaller projects with 95% market rate units and only one type of unit.

These Tier 1 projects, some of which have replaced previously-proposed Tier 2 projects, have caused the typical hysteria that is the City’s response to events that are simultaneously unexpected and predictable. Tomorrow night City Council will consider an ordinance to ban the building of projects with only small studio units after having adopted an emergency ordinance to do this in March. (Which, no surprise, caused the developer of the Tier 1 all-studio projects to sue the City, since the developer understandably felt that he had played by the rules.)

The ordinance won’t solve the problem, however, since it won’t stop the building of studios that are larger than 375 square feet. Meaning that developers could still build Tier 1, all studio projects, but with fewer, somewhat larger units. These would still be profitable: according to statistics I read in a recent Lookout article, 435-square-foot studios currently rent for about $2,500 (or more) in Santa Monica. That’s more than $5 per square foot. (Meaning that whatever residents who live comfortably in big houses or securely in rent-controlled apartments say, there’s a market for small apartments. Not only young tech workers, but think of the many international students at SMC.)

What developer needs to build above 39 feet if there is that kind of money to be made, especially if approvals are not discretionary and the affordable housing requirement is minimal? Figure it this way: if you remove all the unprofitable affordable housing from a Tier 2 project, you’re probably left with the same amount of profitable square footage in a Tier 1 project. As Islas said, 30% of zero is zero.

The ordinance being proposed is a typical example of a whack-a-mole planning. You don’t like all-studio projects? Ban them: whack! But the problem is not that developers have found a work-around to the City’s Byzantine and onerous requirements under the DCP, but the DCP itself, which the City based on wishful thinking and a financial analysis that developers warned the City was flawed.

The fact that the DCP turns out not to be the housing plan the City touted is borne out by a lot of good news about housing in Santa Monica. Anyone who gets around town these days can see that a lot of apartments are under construction.

New apartments under construction on Lincoln Boulevard

According to a March 26 staff report on the City’s Affordable Housing Production Program, in the four years ending 2018 1001 units were constructed, of which 40% (402) are affordable. The 1001 is consistent with the LUCE’s modest goal that 250 units would be built per year, a one-half percentage point annual increase over the city’s approximately 50,000 housing units. Even more encouraging, 759 units were under construction, and 1,384 units had received planning approval. (Keep in mind that these figures are for the entire city, while the DCP only affects downtown.)

These are the kind of numbers that the City could try to use to justify an exemption to the “dreaded” SB50 making its way through the legislature. However, none of this housing is a product of the DCP.

It’s time to revisit the DCP. But who wants to spend six years doing that?

Thanks for reading.

The character of Vicente Terrace

As it turns out, not all politics are local, and what with one thing or another going on in the world, I’m one local news obsessive who has had a difficult time lately obsessing on local news. Thus, no posts here since October, meaning I’ve left uncommented upon elections in Santa Monica and a lawsuit that would upend Santa Monica politics completely. Matters about which previously I would have written much.

But this weekend I’ve put the Mueller report aside to write about a hyper local Santa Monica issue, namely the future of two apartment projects near the beach. I wrote about them in my last column, back in October, and I feel compelled to follow the story.

The owners of the Shutters and Casa del Mar hotels are developing two apartment buildings (with retail on the ground floors) on vacant lots near the hotels. The Planning Commission approved both projects last year, but those approvals have been appealed to the City Council. The council will consider the appeals at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The developer submitted plans for the apartments in September 2015. Even assuming the council denies the appeals and approves the projects, that means it will have taken almost four years to make a decision over two small buildings with a combined 105 apartments, including 16 affordable units. No wonder the legislature in Sacramento is frustrated by how difficult it is to get housing built in California. (Incidentally, based on the development potential of one of the sites, the hotel owners paid $13 million for one of the properties, money that went into the City’s affordable housing fund.)

Of the two projects, the larger one would replace the parking lot between Ocean Avenue and Shutters. The northern edge of the property is Vicente Terrace, a street that runs from Ocean Avenue down to the beach. Residents who live on the north side of the street have appealed the approval of the project, primarily on the grounds that having an apartment building across from their houses would be contrary to “neighborhood character.”

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Vicente Terrace

Before I explain why I disagree with the neighbors’ appeal, it’s only fair to mention that they are not taking the stance of so many opponents of change in Santa Monica, meaning that they are not opposing the whole project. They seem to recognize that buildings across the street housing new neighbors would be an improvement over the parking lot that they face now. What these neighbors say they want is for the developers to make the building look like it’s a row of townhouses rather than an apartment building.

They also acknowledge that the Planning Commission approved a plan that the developer modified to respond to their concerns. The buildings on Vicente Terrace will now be stepped back considerably from the curb (from 15 to 22 feet, even though the zoning ordinance only requires a five-foot setback) and the floors above 36 feet (the height limit the neighbors say they would accept) are stepped back at least another 20 feet, meaning these upper floors will likely not be perceptible from the street below.

There is now only small difference in terms of size and massing between the approved plans and what the neighbors say they want, except that the neighbors want the façades to mimic townhouses rather than apartments. (Related to this, they also contend that apartments across the street will lower their property values.)

I say, “small difference,” but let’s not forget Freud’s concept of the “narcissism of small differences”: small disagreements can fuel passionate arguments. In this case, the neighbors in their houses fervently desire to face façades that are or at least appear to be single-family homes, not apartments.  Instead of the narcissism of small differences, what we seem to have here is plain narcissism. They want the other side of the street to mirror themselves.

As I said, these neighbors don’t seem to be hard-line NIMBYs, and judging by an opinion piece one of them wrote in the Daily Press, some at least assume a liberal political mantle (“Wall Street vs. Main Street”). (I often wonder if Santa Monicans who decry the profit motives of real estate developers don’t go to movies because they’re made by movie producers and studios obsessed with the box office.)

The neighbors, however, seem unaware of how arguments based on “neighborhood character” have historically been used to exclude apartments from neighborhoods because of fears of allowing into neighborhoods the lower economic classes.

Nor do they seem to be aware that in places where the population is generally left-wing, left-wingers have been adept at finding new rhetoric to justify the same old suburban sanctification and glorification of single-family homes vs. the vilification of apartments. (This is of course creates cognitive dissonance here in Santa Monica, where left-wing arguments against building market rate apartments are also based on phony (when coming from generally affluent people) quasi-Marxist arguments based on the expected high incomes of  future tenants who surely will be class-enemies if they can afford to rent new apartments in Santa Monica.)

In the context of the housing crisis created by NIMBYism and the environmental crisis created by sprawl, left-wing arguments against infill development, however, are now being challenged as anti-city and pro-sprawl. As Benjamin Ross puts it in his 2014 book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, a history of how restrictive land use policies aimed against apartments and the people who would live in them destroyed cities and gave us sprawl, “the rise of the antisprawl movement has put resistance to change in conflict with left-of-center social and environmental goals…. [Although] [o]pponents of urban infill are fewer in number . . . they have not abandoned the fight. The rhetoric of the environmentalist Left remains on their lips, but the substance of their agenda has begun to converge with the familiar exclusion of old-line suburbs.” (Emphasis added.) Ross calls this “left nimbyism.”

I live in Ocean Park, a once single-family neighborhood that thankfully became a mixed neighborhood of houses and apartments before the City adopted mono-culture zoning. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the “character” of Ocean Park. On a per square foot basis, Ocean Park has some of the highest priced real estate in California. The Vicente Terrace neighbors’ argument that apartments will lower their property values is laughable.

I want to distinguish these phony leftist arguments from the genuine left-wing concerns of UNITE HERE Local 11, the union that represents hotel workers in Santa Monica, which has appealed the approvals of both buildings. The grounds for the union’s appeal are that the union doesn’t believe that the approvals include enough protections against the renting of the apartments as short-term rentals (either as Airbnb-type lodgings or as corporate housing).

UNITE HERE is right to be concerned about short-term rentals of unoccupied apartments, as they have become a scourge of the housing market. It appears to me, however, based on the staff report, that the City has included sufficient enforcement mechanisms in the conditions of approval and in existing law. (And the City has had some success recently with enforcement.) However, if it’s possible to approve the projects with more effective enforcement mechanisms, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that.

Thanks for reading.

Tales of two more projects

Earlier this year I wrote a post about two development projects that were staggering through the approvals process in Santa Monica. One was an apartment building on Lincoln Boulevard, replacing worn-out automobile repair shops, and the other was a hotel project, the one Frank Gehry has designed for the prominent corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Two similar projects are now plodding towards their respective destinies. One consists of two apartment buildings that are being developed together and which are considered as one project for environmental review. The other is the redevelopment of the Miramar Hotel, for which new plans were publicly released earlier this year.

The two apartment buildings will be built near the beach on land adjacent to the Shutters and Casa del Mar hotels. They will replace two vacant lots—the parking lot behind Shutters with frontages on Ocean Avenue, Pico, and Vicente Terrace, and the space just south of Casa del Mar on Ocean Front Walk.

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Vacant lot on Ocean Front Walk, just south of Casa del Mar Hotel.

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Vacant lot on Ocean Avenue, behind Shutters, between Pico and Vicente Terrace.

The format and programming of the apartments, designed by local architects Koning Eizenberg, conform to that of apartments that both for-profit and affordable housing developers in Santa Monica have been building for about 20 years in commercial zones. Meaning that three or four stories of apartments sit above underground parking and (in most but not all cases) ground floor retail. This model has served Santa Monica well since new zoning that encouraged housing in commercial zones was first adopted in the 1990s for downtown.

Ocean Vicente Terrace Corner

Architect’s rending of proposed apartments between Shutters and Ocean Avenue.

Given that these new apartments on vacant lots won’t displace anyone, given that they are in a busy part of town that has been intensively developed (with many buildings much larger than these) for about a century, and given that they aren’t taller than the hotels next to them (and step back to respect the shorter buildings they will face on Vicente Terrace), one would think that getting approval for these buildings would be easy. Further, the developers have tried to make the process easy on themselves, by asking for no variances from the applicable zoning other than some minor technical adjustments to take into the account the significant slope on the Ocean Avenue lot.

However, the developers are building a “Tier 2” project, which means they have to through a development review rather than an administrative approval. This entails, among other things, an expensive and time consuming environmental review which at the end of the day, for infill projects like these apartments, doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know already. It’s perverse to make it harder to build Tier 2 at this scale, because the public gets more from a Tier 2 project than it does from a Tier 1. Face it, we only make approval harder and more expensive and less predictable for Tier 2 because it’s expected (but not necessarily true) that a developer will make more money from a bigger building. It’s more envy than anything else.

As for public benefits, a Tier 2 project must provide affordable units at a 50% higher rate than Tier 1, and of course, a bigger project produces more affordable units than a smaller project even without the bonus. If you want to house people, you have to build housing. (Also worth noting if you like affordable housing: the City owned the property next to Casa del Mar and sold it to the developers for more than $13 million, money that the City has put into its affordable housing fund. That amount of money was only paid because the property could be developed.)

As it happens, applications for these two apartment buildings were filed in September 2015, three years ago, and they are only now (Wednesday night, in fact) coming before the Planning Commission.

No surprise, but the apartments face neighborhood opposition. A new neighborhood group, South Avenue Residents (SOAR), which represents at least some neighbors on Vicente Terrace, filed a comment letter to the draft EIR with 67 comments. I have read many EIR comment letters, but I recommend this one in particular as a definitive catalog of first-world complaints. My favorite comment in the letter is number 42: “There are multiple dogs and cats living with their owners on Vicente Terrace. How will the developers compensate owners for special care of their animals during construction?”

This attitude of the beach dwellers is nothing new. Twenty years ago when I was on the Planning Commission there was an issue about hours of operation for Pacific Park. A woman, who later became prominent in Santa Monica’s no-growth community, testified that she had recently moved to an apartment near the Pier and she was shocked at how much noise and activity there was on Ocean Front Walk. She said that when she was moving here to the beach, she thought it was going to be like Mendocino.

Disclosure: longtime readers of mine know that when I wrote for the Santa Monica Lookout News nearby neighbors on Seaview Terrace provided plenty of grist for my mill. I’ll confess that I was in part drawn to writing about these new apartments for the opportunity to check in on what was going on in the neighborhood. It was like old times to see that once-serial project opponent Stephanie Barbanell had submitted two comment letters to the EIR. Ms. Barbanell once told neighbors that she considered her opposition to development projects (in particular, any licenses to sell alcoholic beverages) a form of conceptual art, but in recent years she’s been quiet. Good for her that she’s expressing herself again!

Ultimately, building apartments and some ground floor retail on these sites makes sense because the zoning prohibits nearly everything else. The area is under the control of Measure S, passed in 1990 to stop hotel and large restaurant development. What better to be built on these vacant lots than housing? (There may be up to three small restaurants as well.) Would the neighbors prefer an office building? (I’m sure there are tech billionaires who would love to be able to take a break and surf whenever the waves are good.) Anti-development residents in Santa Monica like to go on about how much quieter Santa Monica used to be, as a “sleepy beach town,” but what if someone wanted to bring back Pacific Ocean Park? Or even just put an amusement arcade on these lots? I’m sure the neighbors would love that.

* * *

The revised plans to remake the Miramar Hotel and add condominiums that were released last April were the third major iteration of the plans. The plans are the product of nearly 10 years of controversy. The Miramar and the proposed office and housing project at the Paper Mate factory were the major catalysts for the revival of the development wars in Santa Monica after the approval of the LUCE in 2010.

The revival of the development wars climaxed with the defeat of the Paper Mate plans in 2016. Since then, however, after the defeat of Measure LV in November 2016 and the approval of the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) in the summer of 2017, there has been less heated rhetoric and fewer political battles about development. In the meantime, the Miramar brought in a new team of developers and new architects, the internationally famous firm of Cesar and Rafael Pelli.

The new team appears, with their new plans, to be committed to not igniting another conflagration. They have been more communicative with nearby residents and other locals than the earlier development team. Most important, the new plans fit inside the envelope for the site that the DCP provides. Previous plans required substantial changes to the existing land use parameters.

While the plan includes 60 condominiums, which are controversial in Santa Monica because residents who live in houses worth millions of dollars don’t like to think of their sleepy beach town as a place where rich people live, it also provides for 30 units of affordable housing. Again, as with the beach apartments, while it’s true that rich people, including dreaded Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks looking for new pieds-à-terre, will now have new housing options near the beach, so will more poor and working-class people.

If the plan were going through the approval process now, during the lull in the development wars and not too long after City Council adopted the DCP, I suspect that it would fare well. Unfortunately for the plan, however, it’s now in environmental review jail—an EIR is being written (and yes, for a project this big an EIR is appropriate), and that typically takes more than a year. Then the plan will run a gauntlet of approvals: Landmarks Commission, Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission, City Council and Coastal Commission. It will be at least a couple more years before the plan might win final approval.

Time is the enemy of all plans because time is the enemy of certainty. The Miramar’s developers crafted their first plan (one I didn’t think was very good) in consultation with the City’s planning staff. At a City Council hearing, the plan was shot down because it blocked too many views. The council advised the developers to come back with a tall skinny building, to preserve more views. Which the developers did (with another not-very-good plan), but by then the council had forgotten what it had said about a tall tower, and that plan went nowhere.

It was after that debacle that the Miramar brought in its new team. They waited out the DCP process to see what it would allow them to build. Now they have given us the new plan, which is, by the way, quite good.

But in two years, who knows that the City will be telling them they can build.

Thanks for reading.

Putting new modes in multi-modal

The silicon-enabled “new economy” is now disrupting transportation much as it previously disrupted retail, journalism, entertainment, publishing, etc. Starting with ride-sharing, and now with dockless scooters and e-bikes, infusions of new money and new ideas are colliding with a transportation system that had been locked for decades into a 20th century model that massively privileged drivers of privately-owned automobiles. While scraps of investment were thrown to “mass” transit, culturally the norms were that for car drivers, the ideal was maximal personal freedom and choice, but if you travelled by other means, nearly all aspects of the trip would be constrained.

This even applied to walking: the demands of drivers restricted walkers to skinny sidewalks and caused the criminalizing of walking under the invented concept of “jaywalking.”

Now much of this has been turned on its head, in large part because freedom to drive became a monster that consumed itself, in the form of traffic congestion. When people finally realized that infinitely increasing road capacity and space dedicated to parking was not only impossible but also counter-productive for reducing congestion, governments started to implement policies that allowed for reducing driver freedom and increasing the cost of driving, particularly in cities.

A pivotal moment was London’s implementation of congestion pricing in 2003. While only a few cities have followed with their own direct congestion-pricing programs, many, including Santa Monica, have significantly increased the cost of parking in downtown areas, which is another form of congestion pricing. Cities have expanded car-free zones, narrowed streets, and expanded facilities for pedestrians and alternatives to cars, such as wider sidewalks and bike lanes. Car manufacturers are planning for the decline of individual car ownership.

Meanwhile, in cities and regions like L.A., the public has voted to tax themselves to invest in transit. Yet for a long time many of the controversies about transit involved how to please car-drivers. It was controversial when the City decided to provide little parking at Santa Monica Expo stations. Now, with Uber and Lyft, as well as public bike-sharing programs, and with significant reductions in the use of the City’s existing parking garages, and given at the same time the success of Expo, those debates over parking seem like what they were: from another century.

And now scooters. Like everyone else, I was confused last September when Birds first appeared lined up on downtown Santa Monica sidewalks. Then I saw people riding them. And like everyone who wasn’t riding them, I got indignant, especially when I saw scooters being ridden on sidewalks.

But I’ve come around. I mean, talk about another mode in “mixed-modal.” For years transit planners have been worrying about the “last mile” problem, and sure enough someone comes along with an option that works for many transit users (not all, of course—nothing works for all) and which requires zero public capital investment. Wow. We should be trying everything we can to make this work.

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Vehicles that are not scooters blocking traffic.

Government planners are naturally uncomfortable working with for-profit partners, in a context, transit, that traditionally requires subsidy. But it’s not the first time public/private partnerships have built transportation systems. The transcontinental railroads were a public/private partnership, and since World War II America has built a tremendous continent-wide transport system consisting of airlines, airports, interstate highways, and rental cars. (But open only to those with credit cards.)

As for the criticisms of scooters and scooter riders, one need not wage generational war to realize that scooter use needs to be subject to rules. But non-riders should calm down. Frankly, while as a daily cyclist my hackles were at first raised by having to share “my” bike lanes, my attitude started to change when I realized that the complaints about scooter riders were often the same complaints made against us cyclists.

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Vehicles that are not scooters blocking an intersection (during the scrambled-walk phase).

Two things to remember are (i) that these scooters are a new thing and if Bird had asked to be regulated ahead of time, no one in City Hall would have known what to do with them, and (ii) that with education and outreach, people can change behaviors, particularly if the admonitions to change come from the peer group.

Put it this way: if dog owners can learn to clean up after their pets, and if smokers can learn not to smoke everywhere they want, two advances in social etiquette no one would have predicted 30 years ago, scooter riders can learn not to ride on sidewalks.

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Behavior modification in process.

Also, we have to be mindful of how people exaggerate the importance of new and recent occurrences. A few weeks ago, there was outrage on Facebook because of an accident on the beach bike path that involved a scooter. Accidents are bad, and motorized vehicles shouldn’t be on the bike path, but every weekend there are accidents on the bike path. As a cyclist who rides the bike path, let me say that three pedestrians walking side-by-side, blocking a lane, or racing roller-bladers sweeping from side-to-side, shouldn’t be on the bike path, either.

People didn’t need scooters to do stupid things.

And if the City is so concerned about helmets, how come it doesn’t make Breeze bike users wear them?

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Parked vehicles that are not scooters taking up valuable space.

I only have a few things to say about the competition over which two scooter companies get to participate in the City’s pilot program. To begin with, the City gets points for having the program, rather than reacting to scooters by banning them or making arbitrary limits on them as other cities have done. You can’t regulate something you don’t know about.

As for the competition among the companies, I’m less sure that the City is taking the right approach. (By way of disclosure, I’m friends with three locals who work for Bird.) As has been reported, the City asked interested companies to submit applications, answering a series of questions. A staff committee then graded the applications and made recommendations based on those grades. Unfortunately, it seems that the committee limited its review to the applications, without, it seems, considering the “real world.” (The final decision will now be made by the Director of Planning, David Martin, who apparently is not limited to the applications or bound by the recommendations.)

The result was that the committee recommended two companies for the pilot, neither of which has operated a scooter business previously. One company is owned by Uber, and the other by Lyft.

Uber happens to be one of the most reviled companies in the real world, a company that seems to treat everyone badly. I can’t see why Santa Monica would want to enter into a pilot program with an Uber company.

I’m a fan and user of Lyft’s car-sharing service, and the company is in business already with the Big Blue Bus on a program to give last-mile access to low-income transit users. As I said, however, Lyft has never operated a scooter program before and it shows in Lyft’s application.

The advantage of filing an application when you don’t have experience in a field is that you can say anything. Lyft’s application is full of clauses like, “we are committed to working with the City,” or “Lyft looks forward to working with the City,” or “Lyft proposes to work with the City.” The application tells us that Lyft “is in the process of acquiring” a company it expects will “maximize the quality of our Santa Monica presence.” It’s all air.

The City committee graded Bird’s application low, and after reading it I’m not surprised. It’s shorter and sparser than the Lyft application. Their motto seemed to be, “just the facts, ma’am.”

I also detect, however, in the committee’s shunning of Bird and Lime, the two existing scooter companies, a tendency in Santa Monica to ignore realities in the service of an ideal of fairness. This tendency does not in fact guarantee fairness, and along the way it tends to screw up results.

Ignoring the realities of Bird and Lime reminds me of how, when evaluating proposals to redevelop the Bergamot Station art center, the City ignored Wayne Blank, the master lessee of the galleries for decades, and truly the inventor of the art scene there. Blank was also the owner of important adjacent properties. When the process of determining the development team the City would work with began, it was hard for me to envision the City choosing any team that didn’t include Blank.

But that’s what the City did, and the whole process crashed and burned. The City has had to start all over at Bergamot. That’s what happens when you ignore reality.

Thanks for reading.

My Jonathan Gold story

Along with everyone else in L.A., I am mourning Jonathan Gold, and like it seems nearly everyone, I have a Jonathan Gold story. It’s a small one, as stories about Mr. Gold go, but it is true to character.

But first some necessary back story. Some years ago a cousin of mine went to China to teach English. He met a woman there, from the city of Liuzhou, in Guangxi province in the far south of China. They fell in love, and married. After a few years in China, my cousin returned to the States with his bride. They settled in the Bay Area, but they have visited us here in Santa Monica a couple of times.

Southern California is, of course, the home of many immigrants from all regions of China, who have, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley, opened many, many restaurants that feature seemingly infinite varieties of Chinese food, varieties based on specific regions, ingredients, cooking techniques, etc. Jonathan Gold famously wrote about those restaurants and the restaurants of many other diasporas that have reached our shores (and valleys).

Knowing this, prior to visiting us, and because he wanted to be a good husband to his somewhat homesick wife, my cousin would research the Web to find restaurants here that served food from Guangzi. In particular he was looking for the specialty of his wife’s hometown, Liuzhou, a noodle stew called luosifen that is based on a snail and pork bone stock. The first time they visited my cousin found a restaurant, not surprisingly, in the San Gabriel Valley. For the second visit, however, a few years ago, he shocked me by finding a little restaurant in a strip mall on Westwood Boulevard that served luosifen. It’s called Qin West, and it is as tiny (so tiny that it doesn’t have its own restrooms) as it is authentic. Needless to say I’d never heard of it.

Flash forward a few years, to last year, when City of Gold, the documentary about Jonathan Gold, was playing at the Laemmle theaters on Second Street in Santa Monica. My wife and I went to a screening that featured a Q&A afterwards with Mr. Gold and the director of the film. My wife and I loved the movie and very much enjoyed the discussion afterwards.

When we walked out of the theater onto Second Street, Mr. Gold and the director and friends of theirs were standing around on the sidewalk, talking. I screwed up my courage to ask Mr. Gold a question that had been on my mind for years, namely, why are there no truly good and authentic Chinese restaurants on the Westside?

Now, before you say that the answer is obvious—because there are few Chinese, let alone immigrant Chinese, living on the Westside—let me point out that there are good restaurants representing other immigrant communities here. We have good Thai restaurants, good Japanese restaurants, good Mexican (including Oaxacan) restaurants, good Korean barbecue, etc. Restaurants run by immigrant families cooking what they know.

So I asked Mr. Gold my question. He looked at me kindly, but without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “You mean, other than Qin West?”

Thanks for reading.